On Early Medieval Monasticism for Comprehending Western Patristics

Initial Disclaimer

These are some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for quite a while and have gelled as I prepare for my dissertation defense and consider my on-going course of study and research. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here; in fact, somebody in one of the fields that touches on mine may have already said this in a more lucid form (perhaps it’s lurking in de Lubac) and if so I’d love to be directed to it.

The Main Thought

Understanding early medieval monasticism, its goals and means of theological transmission, is crucial for understanding the spread, development, and impact of the study of the Church Fathers on the Western Church.  Without understanding the monks, you miss the ways that they shaped and directed how the West encountered the Fathers.

Unpacking That A Bit

The Church Fathers, those bishops and teachers who led the Church for the first five or so centuries, wrote widely and variously. That is, we have a wide variety of genres (the most common being homilies, letters, disputations [especially against heretics of various stripes], and treatises). Note the nature of the first three—these are fundamentally occasional genres; they address a particular situation in the life of a particular church although they may well have larger implications.

I debate whether to put “commentaries” on the list. Many of the commentaries that we know are not commentaries in a modern sense but, rather, are homilies grouped and arranged—sometimes within the author’s lifetime and by their hand, sometimes afterward and by another.

My central point here is that the majority of patristic writings are occasional as opposed to systematic; we lack syntheses from the early period. The closest would be some of the catechetical writings of Cyril, Ambrose, and Augustine.

The early medieval monks in their process of copying manuscripts began the important work of synthesis necessary to grasp and communicate the fullness of the occasionally oriented patristic wisdom. Key early figures who I would point to as central in this transition would be Cassiodorus, John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and Gregory the Great.

The synthetic task consists of two major components with a common source: selecting key works that lead to 1) amalgamating similar or common thoughts and emphases and 2) creating secondary works built from selections of primary works. The first may be found in the treatises and homilies of the early medieval monastics, the second in their homiliaries (taking that category broadly) that then flowed into glosses. At the root, though, is the initial selection of sources.

Picking up the second in particular, I remain convinced that most patristic wisdom in the West came through the early homiliaries, reaching fixed form in the works of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary and Smaragdus’s catena on the Gospels and Epistles. I believe that a study of existing manuscripts will bear this out. That is, few monasteries and cathedrals owned many volumes of patristic writings, rather, they may have owned a few—a treatise or two by Augustine, Gregory’s Gospel Homilies and Letters—but obtained most of their patristic learning from the homiliaries as transmitted in the Night Office and in holy reading.

Paul the Deacon’s homiliary, especially with the support of the Carolingian court, became the standard collection that formed the heart of the breviary tradition up to Vatican II. This point is argued and documented by Smetana. Thus the items included in Paul the Deacon, supplemented by Smaragdus, became the most widely distributed and most widely known and therefore the most widely cited patristic texts. Smetana argues this, IIRC, but does not marshal the data to demonstrate it.

I don’t have data to demonstrate it yet either, but knowing the ways in which Ælfric and Haymo used Paul the Deacon and Smaragdus in creating their own synthetic homilies, I do believe that it can be shown (especially given new collations of manuscript data and placement as in Godden’s recent work on Anglo-Saxon libraries).

Thus Paul the Deacon is single-handedly responsible for the selection of patristic texts that most educated members of the Western Church learned. Furthermore, Paul incorporated a number of monastic synthetics; Gregory and Bede are at the core of his homiliary. Their own selections and syntheses further concentrated the patristic streams and themes transmitted to later periods.

Both the Scholastic period and the Renaissance re-discovered certain patristic writings, working them back into the western church. Nevertheless, this rediscovery was always in relation to the Tradition’s core synthesized and transmitted by the monastics and the breviary.

The Final Pay-Off

Thus, the early medieval monastic movement is responsible for selecting and fore-grounding particular issues, themes, and authors that have come to represent the main lines of patristic thought to the modern Western Church.

9 thoughts on “On Early Medieval Monasticism for Comprehending Western Patristics

  1. CG

    As a non-mediævalist, and not even an historian, but with a keen interest in Matins readings and responsories, I find this very interesting. Searching for simple further references online merely landed me at your other blog! Care to offer a reading list for beginners?

  2. rick allen

    Isn’t this sifting and systemization the essence of what we mean by “scholasticism”? If not, how would you draw the distinction? And would you say that a similar process occured in the East?

  3. Derek the Ænglican


    Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about where I’d start if I were trying to teach Patristics. The comments are important too—Anastasia offers some good advice, correctives, and context.

    As far as Paul the Deacon goes…I’m distressed to find that one of my most important file folders is missing from it’s place in my dissertation photocopy box… Contained in there is my photocopy of Cyril Smetana, “Paul the Deacon’s Patristic Anthology” in The Old English Homily & its Backgrounds, Ed. Paul E. Szarmach and Bernard F. Huppé. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1978), 75-97. Here Smetana identifies Priamry sources in order of importance. If you have access to an academic library, I’d heartily suggest taking a look.

    Although I don’t have it to hand, I can tell you that the starting places par excellence are Gregory the Great’s Forty Gospel Homilies, Bede’s Homilies (I and II), and the Sermons of Leo the Great.


    Not at all… Yes, the Scholastics were systematic but the intention was very much different. The best statement on the difference and a positive statement on the monastic goals can be had in (throw this one in there too, CG) Leclercq’s classic The Love of Learning and Desire for God which is a magnificent study of monastic culture and its foundations in both Scripture and the Fathers flowering into the liturgy.

    Monasticism tends to center itself around spiritual practice while Scholasticism finds its home more in the explication of doctrine. (Neither facet is absent in healthy forms of either movement, but its about the emphases…)

    I confess that my knowledge of the East is…lacking…but might hazard a guess that the Philokalia is to the East as Paul the Deacon is to the West with perhaps an even greater deliberate emphasis on cultivating practices of prayer.

  4. rick allen

    Derek, thanks. The example of the Philokalia is helpful (I’m familiar with a selection published in English as “Early Fathers from the Philokalia” by Faber and Faber).

    When you spoke of “synthesis” of the patristic literature I thought of the mostly critical work of ironing out apparent contradictions, the sort of thing that’s so central to the form in which St. Thomas’ Summa is presented.

    But it sounds like you are really talking about what I think used to be called a “florigium.” Not so much a critical review as an anthology of texts.

  5. B. Hawk

    On reading about patristics:
    I agree with Derek that Cyril Smetana’s “Paul the Deacon’s Patristic Anthology” is an esp. important starting point–for the early Middle Ages, and esp. for Anglo-Saxonists.

    Beyond primary sources: Although it’s mainly focused on a time period a bit later, Beryl Smalley’s The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages also comes to mind as offering much helpful information on patristics and medieval use.

  6. B. Hawk

    Also, Derek, thanks for a great post–looking forward to the diss. selection on Paul the Deacon (which I see you just posted today).

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, Smargadus’s work is a florilegia, but I think of Bede as the perfect example. In his Gospel commentaries, he tended to take passages from Gregory and others (marking them in the margin with a sign and thus inventing the source critical footnote!). He has a commentary on the Pauline letters which consists entirely of extracts from Augustine. His sermons, on the other hand are original in the sense that they are not made up of extracts but his method is so thoroughly patristic that he uses their methods and strategies without needing to quote a one. That’s the monastic synthesis.

  8. rick allen

    I suppose a secular counterpart would be the Digest of Roman Law produced under Justinian–a very large compilation of extracts from the classic Roman jurisconsults, arranged topically.

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